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talize her crime. But Jehovah is the victor. He has
broken the mightiest of men : he has also destroyed the
woman who was this instrument. His power alone
remains undiminished, shown to be stronger than ever.
Somewhat subtle is Hebbel's motivation of Judith's
deed because of her peculiar condition of being neither
wife nor maiden. At the same time her relation to
Holofernes is to represent the never-ending conflict of
the sexes and the metaphysical basis of this relation.
Both figures in common embody the nature of the strong-
willed poet with passionate desires. The social instincts
serve as a background and stand out strikingly, as never


before on the German stage, in the powerful folk-scenes
of the third act.

Everywhere Hebbel's chief aim is that which he
recognised as the most important in Shakespeare's art,
"to disclose the roots of morality in life in the grandest
possible manner by cutting away the weeds that cover
them up." Nowhere is it his object in his works to
plead the cause of an abstract idea. He is an absolute
Realist although the form keeps clear of all trivial
reproduction of reality and his language indulges in
bold metaphors. Judith may be called the first modern
drama of the nineteenth century because here for the
first time, unconcerned about artistic tradition, the
expression of the peculiar nature of the present is
attempted in a suitable corresponding dramatic style.

It was put upon the stage in Berlin, July 6, 1840, a
bold venture, and at one stroke Hebbel became known.
The critics, with all their objections, had after all to
acknowledge the depth of thought, the loftiness of
artistic purpose and the astonishing maturity of the
young author.

After a somewhat lengthy pause a work, which had
been planned earlier, was finished, Genoveva (1840-
1841). Once more he chose an old, well-known subject
which he tried to explain by human motives. For a
long time he had been thinking over the problem which
for him consisted in this, that a noble, yielding, inno-
cent, youthful nature because of sensual love to a trans-
figured saint falls a victim to criminal madness. That
is the misfortune, the guilt and the justification of
Golo, the real hero of this tragedy. Genoveva, on the
other hand, steps into the background and remains in-


wardly unaffected by all that befalls her. The most
guilty is the husband who believes in her infidelity
upon mere circumstantial evidence, because according
to Hebbel it is far more sinful not to suspect the
divine in our neighborhood, and without further investi-
gation to take it for its black adversary, than to de-
molish it in world-destroying madness because we can
not possess it.

In spite of the fact that Hebbel's work is superior
by far in genuine poetic merit to the works of the
same name by Maler Miiller and Ludwig Tieck (vide
p. 10) yet he could not after all remove the fundamental
weakness which lay in the legend, the preponderance
of the epic and lyric, although he did with firm hand
strengthen the plot in the earlier acts. In his work,
too, the miraculous and the reflective gain too great
an influence, and again the manner of treatment and
the motivation of the chief characters is too subtle.
Hebbel could not use the reconciliation which comes
at the close of the old legend if he was to be true to
his belief in the incurable nature of the world's woe.
And yet to comply with the demand for it he wrote
an epilogue in 1851, in which the forgiveness of all
wrongdoing is brought about by the husband volun-
tarily offering to take upon himself all Genoveva's suf-
ferings due to him, and by Genoveva forgiving Golo,
her accuser, in the words of the Lord's Prayer. In the
unhappy Golo Hebbel has revealed his own thoughts in
the period of their development and in their antitheses ;
in this character therefore is the best key to an acquain-
tance with the young poet.

The whole drama reveals his view of the world with
the same power and with still stronger proofs than


Judith. Everything that happens is only from our
standpoint good or bad, everything originates with the
world-will which rests in God and the business of the
poet is to reproduce in his work of art, in a clear and
comprehensible manner, the working of this will back of
life which represents it veiled and unconsciously. In
order to be able to do this he must dive down deep
in the abyss of personality to discover the first motives
for the acts, which have their root in the soil of the
eternal interdependence of all things. In this connec-
tion Genoveva with all its dramatic faults is very sig-

In the prologue to the comedy, Der Diamant, which
was finished immediately after Genoveva (1841), it is
said by the poet:

Er ist in die bewegte Welt
Als fester Mittelpunkt gestellt,
Der, unberlihrt von Ebb' und Flut,
In sich gesattigt, schweigend ruht,
Weil er in sich jedweden Kreis
Begonnen und beschlossen weiss,
Und weil in ihm der Urgeist still
Die Perl', sein Abbild, zeugen will,
Das, wenn es in die Zeitlichkeit
Hinaustritt, jeden Riss der Zeit,
Schon dadurch heilt, dass sie erkennt,
Was sie vom ew'gen Wesen trennt.

His purpose to give, in a cheerful light, a picture of
the working of the original spirit did not, however,
succeed. Here, too, it was not a question with Hebbel
of individual phenomena but of the connection of
trifling, seemingly unimportant and ridiculous incidents
with the eternal conditions of existence. Through the
diamond is to be revealed the innermost nature of all


who struggle for its possession. But especially the
scenes which take place at a fanciful court are lifeless
and contrast too strongly with the rough comic of the
rest, the nature of which corresponds to the highest
conception of what is comical and yet is not easily and
directly comprehensible.

When Hebbel sought aid in Kopenhagen from the
King of Denmark, his sovereign, a handsome travelling
scholarship was granted him for two years. Even be-
fore he left his home-land the greater portion of that
tragedy had been written which of all his works was
best to reflect national character, Maria Magdalena.
It was finally finished in Paris and appeared in 1844
with its important preface on the relation of dramatic
art to the times. It is based on incidents which Hebbel
saw in Munich when he was living with a cabinet-
maker who, like his hero, was called Anton. "I saw
how all the members of this worthy middle-class family
grew gloomy when the gendarmes led away the foolish
son. I was deeply moved when I saw the daughter,
who waited upon me, really breathe freely again when
I joked and fooled with her in the old fashion." Heb-
bel had become the confidant of this daughter; from
her confessions Clara's story took its origin. The
fate of the unhappy, deserted sweetheart had often been
made use of for dramatic effect even before Goethe
wrote his Gretchen-tragedy, but mostly from the stand-
point that the seducer belonged to the nobility, the
fallen girl of the middle classes, and that fear of a
rough honorable father drove her to child-murder or
to suicide. The difference in rank does not exist in
Hebbel 's play. It is no longer the oppressed citizen
of the eighteenth century but the middle-class of the


nineteenth which esteems itself the real representative
of the people. But only so much the narrower is the
constraint of life which destroys all free judgment
and all free conduct because their social position and
self-respect is based upon traditional ideas of honor
and right and not upon a view of morals arrived at
independently. Hebbel had already written in his
diary at Munich: "There is no worse tyrant than the
common man in his family circle." He had learned
that in his own youth, so many of the impressions
of which had gone into the Maria Magdalena, and he
now copied it with its most striking characteristics into
the figure of the cabinet-maker Anton. In this drama
everything is unconditional necessity. The character
of the people is entirely conditioned by the class to
which they belong; for them this means fate, and the
ethical point of view peculiar to this class suffers no
opposition from any individual. No one is capable of
venturing an independent judgment of the world that
closes him in; it decides as to fortune and misfortune,
life and death, and from this comes the depressing
feeling left by this great work of art.

It is not a question here of a struggle between equal
opponents, but the whole of middle-class society goes
to smash from within before the eyes of the spectators
without any new or better substitute showing itself
in the background. To uphold middle-class respecta-
bility at all costs is the main point just as in the older
middle-class drama, but while this latter shows only
the advantageous exterior of a society supported by
firm principles, Hebbel lights up the interior and proves
how much that is humanly valuable is destroyed for
the sake of appearance and how rotten the pillars of


this society really are. The unfortunate Clara, who
was originally to give the name to the play, is a victim
of the class whose views mean for her the eternal
cosmic system. When she believes herself deserted by
the lover of her youth she becomes the loveless be-
trothed of Treasurer Leonhard merely to escape de-
rision and to stifle in her own heart her love for the
supposedly faithless one. Her lover returns and keeps
away from her because of her engagement. She yields
herself to her betrothed because he demands this proof
of her affection and, according to the views of their
class, this cannot be considered a grievous sin with
engaged couples. "If she is going to become my wife
then she knows that she is risking nothing." Then
all is suddenly changed because of a supposed theft
by her brother, which covers Clara's family with shame
and causes the loss of her small dowry. The Treasurer
cancels the engagement, especially when an advanta-
geous union with the ugly niece of the mayor offers itself
and Clara's prayers cannot bring him back to her.
Even the lover is completely steeped in class-prejudice
and says when he hears of Clara's trouble: "Nobody
can get over that! To be obliged to lower her eyes
in the presence of the fellow in whose face one would
like to spit? ... Or one would have to put the
dog who knows it out of the way by shooting ! ' ' Clara
had sworn to the father that she would not bring
disgrace upon him and therefore goes voluntarily to
death. But even this sacrifice is made in vain, for her
purpose of avoiding the suspicion of suicide is unsuc-
cessful. Thus everything works together to destroy
her and the father whose sole life-purpose is the preser-
vation of a stainless reputation. In the closing words


of Master Anton, "Ich verstehe die Welt nicht mehr,"
middle-class ethical standards proclaim their bank-
ruptcy; they fall in ruins before our eyes.

With Maria Magdalena begins the social drama of
the present day. No longer is the contrast of classes
brought before us in passionate conflicts but society
is described and its defects revealed. Therefore the
delineation of conditions becomes more important than
the plot and a new technique is the result. Only the
last stages of a course of destiny are shown ; these are
just as much settled by general conditions as by the
peculiarities of the people concerned and from this
the necessity of all preceding incidents is analytically

The principal difficulty with this technique consists
in making known without omissions the necessary as-
sumptions in the course of the plot and yet dovetail-
ing them without effort into the dialogue in such a
way that the interest of the spectators is retained to
the close and the action advances continuously. Be-
cause of these peculiar conditions, the modern society-
drama is akin to Greek tragedy in its construction and
in its portrayal of typical characters but with the reser-
vation that, conformably to the complicated conditions
of the present, the personages are no such simple crea-
tions as those which the Greek writers present. The
general impression derived from both classes is one of
fate. But while in the Greek the justice of the course
of the world is proven, here the final result is a depress-
ing conviction of the unconditional and unfailing effect
of social and natural laws by which freedom of action
seems done away with.

The representatives of ' ' Young Germany ' ' had already


aimed at such a drama theoretically. Hebbel came in-
dependently to similar requirements, supported far
more strongly by thought and experience. He satisfied
them in his Maria Magdalena more completely than
his predecessors and with the same devices as his most
important successor, Ibsen. In the society-dramas of
his middle period the latter stands entirely on the
shoulders of Hebbel.

Thus Maria Magdalena is the cornerstone of the new
dramatic art but at the same time in another respect
the conclusion of the old. In the magnificent figure
of Master Anton, hewn as it were from granite, we
see the descendant of music-master Miller in Schiller's
Kabale und Liebe. He lacks, however, the joyful self-
confidence, the fighting spirit and the rude cheeriness
of his ancestors. The quills, which the middle-class
citizen in the early days of that class wore on the
outside, have been turned inwards; he does not venture
to struggle, he thinks nothing at all about people,
nothing bad, nothing good, and only in his sense of
middle-class honor does he see the standard which he
applies to all things. With his great heroic spirit he
is held fast in a narrow circle of thought and clings
to the belief that the existing cosmic order is just and
complete. If this belief goes to pieces, then he too, and
his class, must be ruined. That is proven in the
younger generation which grows up beside him light-
hearted and assertive.

To him who looks deeper there are revealed in Maria
Magdalena the causes of the convulsions which society
has witnessed since 1840, except that here that influence
is not yet visible which was gained soon afterwards
by the new social forces which came into being because


of the development of industry. No longer the upper
classes, but the organised masses of workmen, demand-
ing equality, are now the opponents with which the
middle classes have to contend. The outlook opens
upon a new middle-class drama which now does not
picture a condition of rest but the passionate struggles
of two mighty opponents. To find for this just as
complete an expression on the stage as Maria Magdalena
gives of the self-destruction of the middle class is re-
served as one of the greatest artistic problems for the
twentieth century.

Hebbel's criticism of society is continued in the two
dramatic works which had their source in his impres-
sions of travel. In Paris he took delight in the larger
bustling life going on all around him. He had, it is
true, been born and had grown up in a small place
but was by nature and inclination a metropolitan who
would feel permanently comfortable only in the full
stream of busy public life. Then when he went to Rome,
the ruins which formerly had spoken so eloquent a
language to Goethe could only speak to him of van-
ished greatness. The deep moral degradation and the
wretched government of the city, as well as in the
neighboring kingdom of Naples, where he stayed later,
confirmed his view of the incurable nature of the world's
conditions and again he sought to give pictures of the
present, in which they should be delineated.

In November, 1845, he found a second home in
Vienna, where he had been detained by an accident.
It was a year later before there stirred in him again
the impulse to create and he wrote the two dramas of
the present, whose scene of action is laid in Italy; the
tragi-comedy, Ein Trauerspiel in Sizilien, and the trag-


edy, Julia. Both are taken from the sphere of the
disgusting, of the simply horrible which Ilebbel thinks
is the result of modern conditions. In the first the
fundamental element of humor is to so combine the hor-
rible with the bizarre that the one as well as the
other will only have a moderated effect. The fearful
appears in the lowest form because in the play the
obsolete police-governed state is fate, and at the same
time the contrasts of economic inequality represent the
fearful danger of an unevenly increasing wealth. The
effect of this mixture of the horrible and the comic
can not but be disagreeable.

The very same is true of Julia, which likewise is
intended to reflect Italian conditions before 1848. The
heroine finds herself in the same condition as Clara in
Hebbel's middle-class tragedy; her father, like Master
Anton, considers himself a just man but the solution
of the problem is complicated because other factors
play a part. The note of responsibility to the coming
generation is already struck in the play when Count
Bertram, shattered in health by excesses, declares that
marriage between "life" and "death," between healthy
youth and worn-out debility, is the "mother of ghosts."
Thus there sounds in our ears not only the subject but
even, accidentally, the title of one of the most sig-
nificant of Ibsen's works.

Artistic command of his material, clearness and cer-
tainty in grasping reality here fail the author and
therefore, in spite of the historic importance which
Julia plainly possesses, in spite of the scenes of inimita-
ble grandeur and beauty, justly praised by Otto Lud-
wig, the work after all must likewise be considered
a failure.


The bitter despair voiced in it is an echo of Hebbel's
youth. When he wrote the Trauerspiel in Sizilien and
Julia (1846) the pressure of poverty had been taken
from him, he had found in Vienna a second home, and
in the noble actress Christine Enghaus a life companion
such as he needed. No unconquerable passion had led
him to her because, as he said, the whole man in him
belonged to poetry, to that power which to him was
the most important, for out of it alone springs his
own happiness and the advantage which the world can
derive from him.

What new works he wrote from now on were not
to embody eternal contrasts in that accidental form
which the circumstances of his own time gave them.
He chose by preference the turning-points of history
where these contrasts, represented by two ages and
their points of view, had come together in mightiest
collision. This was the origin of the great works of
his last period, at their head Herodes und Mariamne
(1847-48). Herod, whom fate has placed at that
point of historic development where the heathen-Jewish
and the dawning Christian world are both visible at
the same time, sees in his wife, in agreement with the
old passing view-point, merely a costly possession ; she,
however, loves him with a different, to him new and
incomprehensible love, which seeks its happiness in
sacrifice. This is the source of the conflict in this
thoughtful drama and it is made greater by the general
conditions of the time and by those peculiar to the
Jewish tetrarch dependent upon Home. In him pulses
in feverish excitement the blood of his great forefathers
and upon him weighs the curse of the old egoistic ethics
and of the heart-loneliness springing therefrom. He-


rodcs wnd Mariamne became a universal drama in the
highest sense. Hebbel did not aim at describing
' ' Jealousy, monster of frightful mien, ' ' as Calderon had
done before with the same subject; on the contrary,
his very successful purpose was to make the historic
anecdote the expression of necessary human conduct.
Mariamne is beheaded, but that which was in her lives
on and, when Herod immediately afterwards gives com-
mand for the murder at Bethlehem in order to destroy
the Messiah of this new world, his blind rage cannot
stay its victory.

In this tragedy Hebbel has clearly striven for that
pure beauty of form which graces the works of Schiller
and Goethe, but he does so without giving up anything
of his own peculiar nature. He now dispenses with any
display of mere force, any subtle dialectic, any emphasis
upon what is striking and strange in the characters
and if apparently anything of the kind is still left in
them, then the impression arises only from the fact
that Hebbel penetrates deeper than earlier dramatists
into the mysterious origin of personality and discovers
features there which at first sight strike one as irregular
and wilful.

Full of great significance are also the two dramas,
seemingly dashed off with easy touch, Der Rubin (1849)
and Michel Angela (1850). Dcr Rubin conceals under
the cloak of an Eastern fairy-story so much deep
thought that it can scarcely be interpreted fully and,
especially to the superficial Viennese public, was just as
little comprehensible as Grillparzer's kindred comedy,
Weh' dem, der liigt. The rights of the more highly
gifted as compared with the mass and the excuse for the
assumptions of the lesser sort is the subject of Michel


Aiujclo. The play is an artist's merry anecdote "of
cerulean hue" which with the greatest sense of justice
does not deny self-consciousness, and is indispensable
for the full understanding of Hebbel, however little
its merit as a work of art may be in comparison with
his other plays.

Hebbel has also accepted the right of the whole, as
contrasted with the individual, as existing uncondition-
ally for the freest of the sons of earth, the artist. He
defined more generally the value of eminent people
in the most beautiful of his tragedies, Agnes Bernauer
( 1851 ) , in which beauty in itself means tragedy. Agnes
Bernauer 's beauty is in a way a privilege which the
individual assumes over against the whole; it kindles
the most violent passions and in its innocency causes
greater harm than the blackest sinner can accomplish.

Hebbel himself has thus characterized the idea of this
drama: "In it is expressed quite simply the relation
of the individual to society. Accordingly it is illus-
trated by two characters, of whom the one belongs to
the highest classes and the others to the lowest, that
the individual, however grand and great, noble and
beautiful he may be, must yield to society under all
circumstances, because in it and in its necessary formal
expression, the state, all human natures lives, in the
individual, however, only the single phase comes to
development. That is the stern bitter lesson for which
I expect no thanks from the shallow democracy of
our times, but it runs through all history and whoever
cares to study my earlier dramas in their sum total,
instead of conveniently stopping with individual ones,
will find that it has already been proclaimed even there
as far as each separate sphere permitted."


As in the case of the other subjects which had already
been treated before Hebbel's time, he is in these also
completely distinguished from his predecessors by his
point of view, not because of a striving after originality
but because he knows how to go deeper into the nature
of things.

All former writers had glorified Agnes Bernauer, the
unfortunate and beautiful barber's daughter of Augs-
burg, as a martyr, and pictured her murder as an act
of revenge, of patriotism or of cruel class-pride. Heb-
bel proves the necessity of her death for the sake of
higher interests. He shows that Duke Ernest, who
has her killed, sacrifices his feelings as a man for the
good of the state and that the tragic note of heroic
renunciation is inherent in his genuine greatness. He
shows further that the son who puts the possession
of the sweetheart above everything else must first be
trained for the ruler's office to which he is born. Sim-
ilarly Agnes' death means for her husband the victory
of the sense of duty over selfish, sensual desires, as
does the death of the Judin von Toledo for the king
in Grillparzer's drama. Agnes falls a victim, without
protection and without a struggle, and her death, which
does not mark the close but the central point of the
tragedy, cannot impair the great and uplifting effect of
the whole. In this Agnes Bernauer is most clearly dis-
tinguished from Maria Magdalena, which stands next
to it in other respects because of its well-knit, compact
construction, its wealth of individual features and the
compelling logic of the motivation. The language is

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Online LibraryGeorg WitkowskiThe German drama of the nineteenth century → online text (page 6 of 17)